November 30, 2021

Home is a matter of the heart amid virus at Christmas

Kevin Conlon/city editor

Jake Reagan, left, and his father Mike and mother Kate cut venison a couple of days before Thanksgiving. The Reagans would host more than 30 relatives for the holidays, but concerns about COVID-19 have prompted them to scale back to eight or nine family members for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In many ways, we’ll all be home for Christmas, if only in our dreams.

Our traditions go back decades, sometimes generations. Lights. Music. Meals. Laughter and joy.

They’re good times to be shared, time to be together.

Except for one unwanted visitor, barely 100 microns across. It’s so small that 600 of them stretched end to end would barely span the width of a human hair.

If you’re generous, you might say what the heck? What’s one more to a party? Except this visitor kills one of every 50 people it meets in America, and maybe that someone is someone you love.

The safest thing to do during the holidays as COVID-19 kills nearly 2,000 people each day in America is to stay apart, to make sure that — if you have it — you don’t make a gift of it to someone else. But that’s hard.

All those traditions, all those memories.

Each family has its own way of approaching the holidays with coronavirus chilling our hearts and souls.

Here is how these families will do it, mostly with hope that someday soon, we will all be together, if the fates allow. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through, somehow.

Scattered families still united Mike and Kate Reagan usually have a crowd of about 30 people at their home on Starr Road in Cortlandville for the holidays. Their nine children, ages 16 to 37, and extended family that includes 10 grandchildren, would attend the meal or visit during the day for a typical Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This is not a typical year. With the coronavirus raising health concerns, there were only eight at Thanksgiving dinner.

“Unless things change as far as the virus situation, it will be about the same for Christmas,” Kate Reagan said as she prepared for an abbreviated Thanksgiving gathering.

Two of her grown children live out of the area, but even most of those who live with their families nearby will gather in their own homes.

“If we had all the kids in town, we would really exceed the 10person (state-imposed) limit quickly,” Kate Reagan said. “They are sticking with their own families.”

And making a new tradition or two, said Molly Andrejko, one of Mike and Kate Reagan’s children. Andrejko and her family, including sons ages 5 and 7, planned to help decorate the Giving Tree sponsored by St. Anthony’s and St. Mary’s parish and St. Mary’s School. The Christmas gift wishes of families assisted by Catholic Charities and Helping Hands/Caring Hearts are hung on the tree. People can take a tag that includes a present request and buy the gift for the person. Andrejko said her family will take a couple of tags themselves to fulfill some wishes.

“I wanted to make sure we had a focus project for the day,” she said. “Even though this year has been hard, we need to find a silver lining and help others.”

Christmas at the Reagan homestead will feature paella, a Spanish dish that includes venison tenderloin, scallops and shrimp, Kate Reagan said.

Mike Reagan said he will miss having his mother, Barb, over for dinner for the holidays and playing pitch and other card games with family. Instead, technology will bridge the void.

“We are hoping to have a Zoom call at some point during the day,” Kate Reagan said of the web-based video teleconferencing program. “One of the kids will set that up. You need a person from that generation to set it up. They set it up and we all chime in.”

The way the family is conducting its holidays is an extension of how it is trying to use caution during the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing, and some isolation, has become a way of life.

“I think we are doing the best we can to do our part to keep the spread down,” Kate Reagan said.

“I feel bad, but how bad can you feel when we have not had — thank God — anyone terribly ill with COVID.”

‘It just feels empty’
Kelly Chapman has missed Christmas at her grandmother’s house in Arkport only once, in 2001 when Chapman was studying in France. Christmas 2020 will be the second time she’ll miss visiting, this time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m obviously sad but there is a duty to the greater good to not get together with extended family,” she said.

Instead, the Cortland High School teacher will spend Christmas at home in Cortland with her husband, Sean Beppler and potentially Beppler’s mother, Mary Feheley.

In years past, Chapman and others would get together with her grandmother, Lois Chapman, and enjoy the day with sandwiches and the company of nieces and nephews.

“There’s nothing magical about it,” she said. But by not continuing the routine, “it just feels empty.”

Kelly Chapman hasn’t planned how she’ll spend the day, but will probably call her grandmother, she said. Sandwiches also aren’t out of the question.

She will be able to enjoy having Beppler home, which was difficult before the pandemic because he worked in Philadelphia at academic journal publisher Springer Nature.

As a high school teacher who is at high risk of contracting and spreading the virus due to her in-person interactions with students, she understands the need for families like hers not to get together.

But if changing her traditions for a year is what’s required to keep people safe, she’s OK with that.

“I’m upset, but it’s just a blip,” she said. “It’s not something that’s going to last forever.”

Safer celebrations for the holidays

The easy answer to a safe gathering for the holidays? Don’t.

That said, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests finding new ways to share time with the people you love.

“Gatherings during the upcoming holidays can be an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends,” states the CDC’s website. “This holiday season, consider how your holiday plans can be modified to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to keep your friends, families, and communities healthy and safe.”

Limit travel, the CDC suggests, or keep gatherings to only those people in your household.

Here are others:

  • Celebrate virtually using Zoom, Facetime or other videoconferencing abilities.
  • Keep celebrations to people within your household.
  • Limit travel.
  • If traveling, take precautions. Wear a face mask, wash hands throughout the trip and social distance when possible.
  • Plan ahead. Consider the virus’ spread in your community, or your destination — and the duration of the gathering — before deciding to attend.
  • Don’t attend a gathering if you have COVID symptoms, are in quarantine or are awaiting results of a COVID test.
  • Don’t attend if you have an increased risk for severe illness.
  • If you plan a gathering, limit attendees.
  • Host the gathering outdoors or increase ventilation by opening doors and windows.
  • Require guests to wear masks and wear one yourself.
  • Have guests bring their own food and drink to avoid a potluck meal.
  • Avoid shouting or singing, especially indoors, and keep music low so people won’t shout or speak loudly.
  • Encourage people to constantly wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer.
  • Have guests bring their own soap, masks, sanitizer and single-use towels.
  • Limit contact with commonly used surfaces or utensils, and disinfect them often.
  • Use a touchless garbage can if possible and use gloves when removing garbage and wash hands after using gloves.

S.N. Briere

COVID Hanukkah
For Jews, Hanukkah tends not to be a large holiday for gathering, said Sheila Cohen, the secretary of the board of directors for Temple Brith Sholom.

Lighting the menorah, making and eating latkes and playing with dreidel are activities done in the home, with the immediate family. So while the coronavirus pandemic may affect Christmas plans and traditions, it isn’t having as big of an effect for Jews like Cohen.

“It’s not a major holiday,” she said. “It’s more of a fun holiday.”

In years past, the temple would have a part, serving latkes and lighting candles.

Temple Brith Sholom will still celebrate the first night of the holiday virtually on Dec. 10, she said. Starting at 6 p.m., members will eat latkes and share recipes. At 6:15 p.m. participants will light their own menorah and say a prayer for the first night.

Following that, they will play a game of Name that Tune, during which Todd Laffer, a music teacher in Syracuse, will play Hanukkah music on piano. Participants will write the title of the songs that Laffer plays in the Zoom chat box. Between songs, Laffer will call on participants to share Hanukkah remembrances.

“It’s very safe,” Cohen saud. “It keeps people safe at home.”

For the following seven nights, Cohen said that her plans will most likely mean celebrating at home though her son Jay Cohen, who lives in Onondaga County, may come by one night to eat latkes and celebrate. She may also have a virtual candle lighting with her other son Steven Cohen, who lives in Virginia with his family.

As for bigger events, she’s looking to get information on whether there will be a menorah lighting on Homer’s village green this year, which she and other temple members may attend as Cohen sees it as a safe way to celebrate the holiday while socially distancing.

Close is an attitude
Reading, Netflix, a neighborly meal were on the menu for Homer resident Ingrid Fox this Thanksgiving. It likely will be for Christmas, too.

Usually Fox would head to her brother-in-law’s house to eat dinner with him and his wife, looking forward to seeing her two kids in December for separate Christmas visits. This year, everything has changed.

She’ll spend the holidays at home by herself, trying to avoid people and spreading the virus.

“This year I’m staying right here, I’m not traveling,” said the Nixon Avenue resident. “It’s too risky.”

Her neighbors across the street, with whom she is close, had invited her over for dinner. She declined to attend so she could keep herself safe because she has an underlying medical condition.

But the family did bring her a plate of food, she read a book on immigrants settling in Maine titled “Home Now” and watched Netflix.

“I’m fond of ‘The Crown,’ ” she said.

She’s also plans to Facetime her son and perhaps call her daughter.

This Christmas will likely be the first time in eight years she won’t go to Broadway shows in early December with her daughter as part of her Christmas gift to her daughter. She also won’t be able to spend a few days with her son in Manhattan before heading to Washington, D.C., to stay with her daughter and her family for a few days.

So she’ll be sending gifts this year.

“I’ve been doing a lot of online shopping,” she said.

Still, she’ll decorate her home, and she’s really excited to Zoom with family from Florida, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York and Ethiopia.

Her family is safe, and she is, too, she said. “It’s hard, but my kids and I talked and I’m lucky.”


Staff reporters S.N. Briere and Colin Spencer and City Editor Kevin Conlon contributed to this report.